India could look to China as it works on an energy transition | Mint

India could look to China as it works on an energy transition

If renewable energy falls short of India's energy requirement, coal is going to make up the difference.
If renewable energy falls short of India's energy requirement, coal is going to make up the difference.

Summary

  • The Niti Aayog’s carbon capture plans seem over-ambitious. Carbon capture can’t achieve much while emission reduction can.

You know an electricity policy is bankrupt when its advocates start touting the virtues of carbon capture and storage. Decades of promoting the technology, also known as CCS—which filters carbon dioxide from smokestacks and injects the pollution deep underground—have failed to produce more than a handful of operating plants. So plans by India’s government think-tank Niti Aayog to capture as much of 70% of the country’s power-sector emissions should be seen as wishful thinking at best and a dangerous form of short-sightedness at worst. “We have abundant coal and we want to use it, in a sustainable way," the body’s energy adviser Rajnath Ram told Bloomberg News.

That sounds a lot like what China said about its energy planning about 15 years ago—but the technological revolution since then has opened up new, cheaper and cleaner options and India would do well to follow that path.

For CCS to work anywhere, two challenging conditions must be met. One, there must be ample underground reservoirs to store the waste gas that’s produced; and two, the cost of fossil power plus that of CCS itself must be lower than any alternative technology. India fails on both counts.

Take the reservoirs first. More than 80% of the carbon dioxide being pumped underground at a commercial scale globally is being used in oilfields. Forcing gas into petroleum deposits is a long-established technology to draw extra crude to the surface, which produces a revenue stream to help pay the substantial expense of capture and storage.

India is desperately short of domestic oilfields. Just 2.6 billion metric tonnes of its estimated 359 billion tonnes of carbon storage capacity is in petroleum reservoirs—enough to store just one year of the country’s emissions.

That brings us to the second challenging condition for CCS: cost. The most viable slice of that 359 billion-tonne capacity comes from injecting carbon into briny water deposits deep underground. That technology only works in the presence of a credible and rigorously enforced carbon price. There’s no suggestion that India is promising anything of the sort.

The winners in the transition race are technologies that Beijing has been pushing hard for nearly a generation.

Wind and solar are already cheaper than new coal generation in India, and even adding a four-hour battery to ensure power is available after sunset leaves them less expensive than coal with carbon capture, according to BloombergNEF.

Hydroelectricity is another under-exploited resource. India, like China, benefits from its proximity to the fast-flowing waters of the Himalayas. While China has been busy developing this resource that dam-building is now approaching its geological limits, India has neglected the sector. More than 17 gigawatts of projects have been abandoned due to bureaucratic tangles and local opposition. The country is at only about 29% of its capacity for hydropower, with a further 10% under construction. Lifting that ratio would provide terawatt-hours of electricity to India’s cities and control floodwaters that periodically devastate the country’s rural areas.

It’s a somewhat similar situation with atomic power, where the government plans to roughly triple generating capacity by 2031. It’s unlikely to achieve more than about two-thirds of that target, having connected just two reactors in the past decade, compared to 35 in China.

India’s energy consumption, however, is climbing at an astonishing pace, with peak levels rising from 130 gigawatts in 2014 to 230GW last year and projected to reach 400GW in 2030.

India needs to be more realistic about its advantages and disadvantages. It is blessed with abundant solar and wind power, whose potential has been recognized in New Delhi’s long-term policies. Under its latest 10-year plan released last month, the National Electricity Authority expects annual fossil-fired generation over the coming decade to grow by about 162 terawatt-hours, roughly the same increase as has been seen over the past two years. That would put power-sector emissions well within reach of the peak and decline the planet desperately needs.

Getting there depends on hitting targets for zero-carbon power that the country has repeatedly missed. If renewable energy falls short, coal is going to make up the difference. Rather than depending on an unrealistic and unproven new technology to lock away carbon pollution, India must give zero-carbon developers the certainty and policy backing to stop the soot from getting burnt in the first place. The best way to decarbonize India’s coal sector is not to bury its emissions—it’s to bury the industry as a whole. ©bloomberg

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